Death of our county

THE death of Sussex is being predicted by the distinguished historical geographer Peter Brandon in a major new work underlining the ominous threats to the county’s traditional identity.

Based in West Sussex, he warns that in 50-60 years time, Sussex will cease to exist as a separate entity unless there is a significant change of heart, bringing with it a change of lifestyle and a new view of our planet.

Unless people learn to ‘think large but live small’, Sussex will simply become subtopia, he warns - neither town nor city, nor suburb, simply a mass of building and nothing more.

Peter’s book is The Discovery Of Sussex, though he admits he could have chosen a much grimmer title: “I have been working at it almost a lifetime. I am proud to be a man of Sussex, but that counts for less than it used to.

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“Before the war, we had an enormous spirit of patriotism about Sussex; before the war, everybody, writers, artists and photographers, god knows whom always had Sussex on their lips and were proud to be talking about it and promoting it.

“It’s very sad that that’s no longer the case, partly because people are so much more rootless, moving from place to place, changing homes, not settling. The Sussex identity is fast diminishing. Anybody familiar with the county from their childhood will realise the immense changes of the past 40-50 years.

“It’s wonderful to find more and more people getting very concerned about their village or town and wanting to defend it. That’s good news. We are seeing a reaction to the threat to the Sussex identity, but the reaction is very slight. Unless we change our ways of life, Sussex will not survive.

“In the next 50-60 years, Sussex will become more and more a mass of building. It will be covered by urban development one way or another because we are committed as a society to international capitalism.

“The recession alone shows us that something has seriously gone wrong, and I think we have to be rather gloomy about the prospects for Sussex unless we change to a more sustainable life in connection with the land.”

Hence the ‘think large but live small’ motto: “It’s about using less petrol, using more public transport”, says Peter who lives at Kingston ,near Shoreham.

What makes Sussex special is “the sea, the Downs, the Weald, the woods, the marsh - that wonderful countryside around Midhurst, the tangle of sand and clay and stand and stone.”

What used to make it special was the distinctive Sussex character - the sharp shrewd stubborn Wealdsman, the Downsman labourer touching his forelock to the squire, the great sea heritage you can still see vestiges of at Littlehampton, Shoreham and Hastings.

“But the pressure of change is that the agricultural industry in Sussex is very much in decline. You can see that in some respects it will survive, but on the whole the land is considered more and more by speculators as something to be built on.”

England began the industrial revolution yet is now one of the most urban countries in the world: “And that means that we have got urban-minded people affecting Sussex in every way. They come for the sheer pleasure of Sussex, but it means that we have all become Londoners in our attitude - Londoners by instinct, by speech and by aspiration. We may be living in the depths of the country, but the minds of Sussex people have become urban, very much so over the past 80-90 years and that is going to affect Sussex very much indeed.”

The National Park offers hope; the fact that half the countryside enjoys a degree of protection is good: “But for some reason, the world wants urban life to apply, and that will mean the death of Sussex.”

The Discovery Of Sussex is published by Phillimore at an online price £22.50 (ISBN 13 : 978-1-86077-616-8).

Dr Brandon was formerly head of geography at the University of North London and was a founder member of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. He is president of the South Downs Society.